The Thrill of a Touch


When should you touch another person, and when is doing so a mistake?  It’s a matter of some consequence because doing it right can lead to one of life’s greatest joys, and doing it wrong will get you labelled as a fool who can’t be trusted without guards nearby.  What a difference!  What to do?

In 1888 the English playwright William S. Gilbert penned the following words that were then set to music with a lovely melody by the composter Arthur Sullivan in an opera called “The Yeomen of the Guard” [see]:

                                        A man who would woo a fair maid,
                                        Should ’prentice himself to the trade;
                                             And study all day,
                                             In methodical way,
                                        How to flatter, cajole, and persuade. . . .

                                        He must learn that the thrill of a touch
                                        May mean little, or nothing, or much;
                                             It’s an instrument rare,
                                             To be handled with care,
                                        And ought to be treated as such.   

The lyric is about the touch of a lover, but this post is meant to cover other touches as well: the greeting of someone new to whom you’ve just been introduced, the casual touch of a co-worker at your place of employment, and the way to touch someone who needs to be consoled in a moment of grief.

So, in all of these situation, when and how should you touch another person?  The answer is the same as to each: judgment, judgment, judgment!  If you happen to be a person with good judgment—someone with a “sense of occasion” and a feel for “what’s right”—then you don’t need advice from anyone.  If touching is the right thing to do, then simply do it, and do it with the delicacy the moment requires.  But if you’re unsure—not confident of your ability to read a situation and make the right choice, or worried about embarrassing yourself—then pay attention to what follows.

When being introduced to someone new society has rules about touching, and they vary from culture to culture (in Europe, for example, Italians touch a lot and Brits don’t).  In the United States you should routinely shake hands with newcomers, and the handshake should be both firm (without being overdone) and brief.  Don’t hurt the other person, and don’t hang on to his/her hand too long.  The handshake is a formality, neither a contest nor a seduction.  With co-workers you shouldn’t touch them at all except in situations where it is unavoidable (they are falling, for example) or they are rightly being congratulated or consoled for what is going on.  Just don’t overdo it.  When dealing with those in grief, read the grieving person carefully.  Does he/she want to feel the caress of a gentle hand?  To be hugged?  Start slowly and watch the reaction to your movement carefully.  At the slightest indication your touch is unwanted, withdraw immediately.

Most people only want to be touched by those they are close to, and then solely in situations where the touch is appropriate, even needed.  They do not want to be manhandled by strangers or mere acquaintances, nor be the subject of unwanted advances by clumsy oafs who think they’re being romantic when they’re really just being obnoxious. 

Think of it this way:  a touch is a message.  It says “at this moment I have decided that physical contact with you is the right thing to do.” It’s a right brain decision, and the right side of your brain is both good and bad at making this decision.  In this blog I’ve often commented on the necessity of understanding how the right and left sides of your brain affect how you behave [see "The Left-Brain/Right-Brain Life" in Related Posts below].  The left side deals with abstract concepts such as words and numbers, while the physical and creative side of the brain is on the right.  The left side of the brain knows the word “touch,” but the right side performs the action (without knowing what’s it’s called).  The right side therefore must be monitored in any situation involving a touch.  Why monitored?  Because the right side is often impulsive---it will sometimes want to touch someone when a more considered opinion would stifle this impulse (particularly true in sexual situations when libido trumps propriety).  The good part is that, given the okay to touch and instructed to touch appropriately, the right brain is in its element, and whether it’s stroking gently or hugging hard, is good at doing the action right.  Phrased another way, it knows how to deliver the message.

 Gilbert’s lyric about a lover’s training continued:

                                        Then a glance may be timid or free;
                                        It will vary in mighty degree,
                                             From an impudent stare
                                             To a look of despair
                                        That no maid without pity can see!

                                        And a glance of despair is no guide –
                                        It may have its ridiculous side;
                                             It may draw you a tear
                                             Or a box on the ear;
                                        You can never be sure till you’ve tried!

Here’s a cardinal rule about touching another: to avoid a “box on the ear” (referring to being hit, as in a boxing match): never touch someone who’s made it clear that your advance is unwanted.  Forcing your attentions on an unwilling person is the behaviour of a brute, and no one welcomes that reputation.  Affection and desire must be requited (a word that means “mutual” or “desired”).  If someone says “no” or indicates “no,” then however great your personal needs, STOP IMMEDIATELY AND DON’T DO ANYTHING MORE.  Oh,” but you object, “I love her so much, and if she only came to know me she’d learn what a catch I am!  Maybe so, but forcing her to endure pawing won’t put her in the mood to appreciate your wonderful qualities.  Instead, apologize for any missteps you may have made, assure her it won’t happen again, and plan how to impress her at a later time.  If your love is unrequited, don’t press on.  Give it up and look for happiness somewhere else (in a long life, there are—as they say—lots of good fish in the sea).  No matter how much you want to, you cannot dictate desire to another, and forcing yourself upon him/her goes by ugly labels such as sexual harassment, rape, or animal desire run amuck.  Pushing a one-sided romance is a losing tactic.  At best you look like a fool; at worst you’re sitting in a jail cell.

Ah, but then, blog reader, there’s the terrific moment when the other person wants to be touched!  As it were magic or a dream come true, your true love looks at you with his/her own message: “come to me.”  If it’s obvious that’s what’s going on (and be careful not to misjudge this) then go for it!  If unsure, ask permission.  “May I kiss you?”, for example, should clear things up nicely.

 Here’s the end of Gilbert’s lyric:                                       

                                             It is purely a matter of skill,
                                             Which all may attain if they will.
                                                   But every Jack
                                                   He must study the knack
                                             If he wants to make sure of his Jill!

Related Posts:
“The Thunderbolt,” September 9, 2010
"How To Impress People In a Conversation," October 1, 2010
“Men, Women, and Pornography,” December 12, 2010
"The Left-Brain/Right-Brain Life," January 17, 2011
"Seducing Straight Men," March 3, 2011
“Life's Little (But Important) Rules,” April 23, 2011
“Good Sex, Bad Sex: Advice on Making Love,” November 9, 2011
"Fifty Shades of Grey: Corbin Milk in the BDSM World," December 26, 2012
“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013


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